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June 15, 2014 1:18 AM   Subscribe

Tim Jenison had a theory that Joseph Vermeer had made used of particular lens technology to make his paintings almost photo-realistic. To test this, he recreated the setting of The Music Lesson from scratch, harpsichord and all, and even recreated the theorised lenses using 17th century tools. For someone who doesn't know how to paint, he sure did a good job.
posted by divabat (86 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's either madness or devotion, but either way it's impressive.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:31 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


"Tim's Vermeer" was one of the most absorbing documentaries I've seen in years. I was never happy with the generic "camera obscura" explanation. And Jenison is right -- you might pull off a rough "line" drawing with that, but what good is that really? He was working in nuanced color passages, playing with tones. Lines were irrelevant.

If he didn't nail it outright, he had to have come pretty dang close.
posted by RavinDave at 1:44 AM on June 15 [9 favorites]


Jenison's first oil panting using the same method is incredible to the point that I don't really buy that anyone can create the same results with no prior experience.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:05 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Previously
posted by one weird trick at 2:17 AM on June 15


But what they don't really show you is how incredibly tedious and protracted the process is -- so, yeah ... I buy it. Explains Vermeer's rather small output too. The movie does a montage of his final days -- at the 100+ day mark -- and you almost expect him to do that Jack Nicholson scene from "The Shining" (All work and no play makes Tim a dull boy!)
posted by RavinDave at 2:18 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Obsessive eccentric geniuses make the world a fabulous place.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:27 AM on June 15 [38 favorites]


This is great and all, but, painting isn't an engineering issue even though his enterprise is really quite amazing.
I apologize, I have had many drinks tonight, so please forgive me for further rambling.

This has been all over teh intertubes recently and my main issue with it is that on no real level whatsoever does he acknowledge that immense amounts of decisions that go into creating a work of art. Things like paint viscosity, brush speed, bristle count, and oil opacity to name a few. Control of these factors all come from experience in the studio.
When you look at his piece, there is no congruent sense of weight like there is in the Vermeer original. I mean, all the objects in the Vermeer are functioning under the same set of physics while Jenison's objects don't seem quite anchored. The draping rug, where's the density and shadow that explicates real world sensation?

Yes, he nails it on a mimetic level, but why is it that a Vermeer just fucking breaths while his work lies dead on the surface?
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 2:37 AM on June 15 [18 favorites]


Yes, he nails it on a mimetic level, but why is it that a Vermeer just fucking breaths while his work lies dead on the surface?

I find this criticism really irritating. I think it is a misreading of Jenison's project. I don't think he was trying to match the artistry, and in the documentary he explicitly acknowledges that any artistic merit in his reproduction is still Vermeer's merit.

The project was about the engineering issue, and it is a fascinating issue.

The real insight that it provides into the artistic issues is only that artistry such as Vermeer's is hard, back-breaking, obsessive labour, and not magic art-wizardry.
posted by misfish at 3:13 AM on June 15 [74 favorites]


Previously

The earlier MeFi thread has much better links, including this Vanity Fair article.
posted by fairmettle at 3:14 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


why is it that a Vermeer just fucking breaths

Perhaps because Vermeer was an artist and he knew when to cheat a bit to make the work look more real that the subject. But Jenison didn't set out to make a Vermeer painting, just to prove that certain effects that we see in Vermeer's work could have been achieved this way.
posted by hat_eater at 3:15 AM on June 15 [8 favorites]


Yes, he nails it on a mimetic level, but why is it that a Vermeer just fucking breaths while his work lies dead on the surface?

Because you say so.

Mystifications fall like scales from our eyes every day thanks to good science. Vermeer was a heck of a draftsman and colorist,anyway.
posted by spitbull at 4:07 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


This movie was inspiring, and Teller nails it...thinking he was a master inventor and artist and color mixer way ahead of his time is so much more inspiring than [paraphrasing] "Vermeer just fucking breathes." That is so much artist-speak gobbledygook.

I work on photography, and was working on some new stuff as I watched this. Tim's energy and enthusiasm and regular-old roll-up-your-sleeves-and-solve-the-problem spirit is so infective and inviting that I solved a problem with my little rig for my subjects that is so damned obvious yet, in a year, I never saw it.

Vermeer was clearly ahead of his time. Tim's Vermeer made me want to go out and make and do things that where once they seemed daunting, suddenly seemed merely like a series of surmountable challenges. Learn how to make lenses like someone from the 17th century? Sure. That can't be so hard.

Of course, money and time help, and he has lots of both. But on a long enough timeline, many things become possible even without. I like the feeling I get from that.
posted by nevercalm at 4:22 AM on June 15 [27 favorites]


The science and engineering behind some of history's greatest works of art and architecture is such a fantastic field of study, particularly because it is an inherent celebration of human tenacity and ingenuity. The point of these sorts of investigations is not to replicate the soul of a work, which was imbued by the original artist in wholly inimitable ways, but rather to explore the process by which that artist may have achieved their finest efforts. Having an awareness of process expands the mind and allows us to tap into patterns of thinking or evaluating we might never consider. I'd love to spend the rest of my life investigating such things if my income allowed it. Glad to see this on the Blue again today.
posted by Hermione Granger at 5:28 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]


Since lenses in the 17th century were less perfect than modern lenses, I decided to make my own lens using 17th century techniques.

Yeah, this guy is a perfectionist. Great stuff.
posted by iotic at 5:29 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Is this film available online yet? I've been anxiously awaiting it.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:55 AM on June 15


Can someone explain why he didn't just make the harpsichord legs in two parts rather than sawing the lathe in half?
posted by jabah at 6:11 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Vermeer just fucking breathes.

It's great how Mefiers are often polite enough to correct other people's misspelling when they quote!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:12 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


Utterly fascinating! This reminds me that I have a little toy that I found at a yard sale and still haven't used - it's a mirror on a stand that will reflect an image onto paper. It seemed like one of those things that wouldn't work, but for 50 cents, why not?
posted by Calzephyr at 6:22 AM on June 15


It's great how Mefiers (sic) are often polite enough to correct other people's misspelling when they quote!

I did write "[Paraphrasing]," as the commenter had mentioned they had had rather a lot to drink, and "sic" seemed dickish in that context.
posted by nevercalm at 6:26 AM on June 15 [10 favorites]


Obsessive eccentric geniuses make the world a fabulous place.

Yes, we can always do with more of them...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:38 AM on June 15


The BoingBoing article buries this at the very end, but Tim Jenison is the founder of NewTek, the company that created Lightwave 3D (a 3D software package that was especially popular for effects work in the '90s). I can't help but wonder how much his understanding of how light works informed his painting, beyond the technical parameters of recreating Vermeer's setup.
posted by neckro23 at 6:45 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


Is this film available online yet? I've been anxiously awaiting it.

Yes, on Amazon Prime/instant video.
posted by xingcat at 6:55 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Can someone explain why he didn't just make the harpsichord legs in two parts rather than sawing the lathe in half?

From my memory of the film, it was because Jenison is an inveterate problem solver - - he became temporarily fascinated with the lathe problem and his outside-the-box solution - - the traditional two part solution just didn't cut it.
posted by fairmettle at 7:28 AM on June 15


I read the article a few days ago, looked at all the relevant pictures, and still have no idea what this is about. The example they give, that the human eye would see the off-white wall one way, while a camera sees it another, doesn't make any sense to me. I have an off-white wall beside me right here, and there are endless gradations of shadow and color that I have no trouble seeing. Why would Vermeer have had trouble seeing them, in a way that would require a series of lenses to capture? Why would having a photographic image to paint to be different than having the eye's image?
posted by mittens at 7:33 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]


The wall in your room looks off-white to you when the morning sun is shining in the window, and at noon, and during a rainy afternoon, and at night when you turn on the light.


To a camera, and to Tim and his machine, it would look white, yellow, orange and maybe even green depending on your light bulbs. Off-white happens in the brain, not in the world.

See this wonderful illusion.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 7:44 AM on June 15 [15 favorites]


Vermeer's greatness as an artist has never been thought to rest on an extraordinary capacity for photographic verisimilitude. There are dozens of 17th century artists capable of rendering textures, fabrics, flesh etc in astonishingly "life-like" accuracy. Many of them are largely unknown and of little interest to art historians. Some of Vermeer's most famous paintings ("Girl With A Pearl Earring" for example) are clearly not produced in anything like this technique.

The notion that you "explain" Vermeer's artistic success or that you could somehow "replicate" a Vermeer by this kind of technical trick is just laughably stupid. It's like thinking that if you could use quills from exactly the same breed of goose as Shakespeare used you'd write plays just as good as Shakespeare's. Fuck--I can operate a Leica. I could even operate the very same Leica Cartier-Bresson used. That doesn't make me Cartier-Fucking-Bresson.
posted by yoink at 7:50 AM on June 15 [11 favorites]


The notion that you "explain" Vermeer's artistic success or that you could somehow "replicate" a Vermeer by this kind of technical trick is just laughably stupid.

I agree, but I think Tim was trying to show with his experiment that being a great artist wasn't enough (for some of Vermeer's paintings) and that he was a great inventor / technologist as well. This is made explicit in the film where Tim comments that the artistic greatness of the painting comes from Vermeer's choice of subject and composition and lighting at least as much as from the minute details of color shading.

But, to me at least, Tim showed convincingly that Vermeer used advanced optical instruments to paint some of his paintings. Which further heightens my impression of Vermeer.
posted by debagel at 8:02 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]


I can't help but wonder how much his understanding of how light works informed his painting, beyond the technical parameters of recreating Vermeer's setup.

Yeah, Tim Jemison is massively talented across multiple disciplines. He's one of those egalitarian nerds who's kind of awkward in acknowledging his own gifts - he believes with the right tools, anyone can paint like Vermeer. Well, no, if you have the brains and experience with light and visual tools, you can suspect that Vermeer used a secret tool, and then bring that talent and know-how to painting using this secret tool you reverse-engineered by looking at a painting it's not even depicted in.

Tim Jemison can paint like Vermeer (tho his figure work is lacking a certain life, I will agree, but this is the dude's first painting, some slack?) I sure as shit couldn't, even if I had the lenses all set up for me already.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:03 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Can someone explain why he didn't just make the harpsichord legs in two parts rather than sawing the lathe in half?

I don't know the answer to that but it is an example of his dedication that he cut up a ~$30,000.00 milling machine in order to make a seemingly trivial part of his painting.
posted by TedW at 8:04 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


It was the cheap wood lathe he cut in half, not the expensive milling machine.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:30 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


The notion that you "explain" Vermeer's artistic success or that you could somehow "replicate" a Vermeer by this kind of technical trick is just laughably stupid.

I don't think it's supposed to be a replication of a Vermeer?

That is, Jenison doesn't seem to believe that all you need is technological wizardy in order to produce something comparable. He seems to believe that some aspects of Vermeer's work are best explained with technological wizardy in addition to the artistry.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:33 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


It's really interesting to see art tackled primarily from the craft side of things. Because the aesthetics (whether or not the figures "fucking breathe") are subjective, but the craft side of things is really interesting as a perspective on art. I don't think it should be seen as a "lesser" part of it just because you like the aesthetics; if Vermeer did what Jenison thinks he did, that was an act of genius as significant as the painting itself.
posted by graymouser at 8:33 AM on June 15 [11 favorites]


Note that Tim painted his feet and the legs of the table he was painting on into the mirror in his version.

Great documentary. He really proved his point.
posted by Catblack at 8:38 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


Mefiers fucking breathe.

Mefiers fucking breath. Mefites fucking breathe.

Well, no, if you have the brains and experience with light and visual tools, you can suspect that Vermeer used a secret tool, and then bring that talent and know-how to painting using this secret tool you reverse-engineered by looking at a painting it's not even depicted in.

Tim Jemison can paint like Vermeer (tho his figure work is lacking a certain life, I will agree, but this is the dude's first painting, some slack?) I sure as shit couldn't, even if I had the lenses all set up for me already.


Yeah, but in the film Tim brings in someone who had not painted and did not have the experience with light and video he had and they did a painting together. It was similarly detailed and fantastic.
posted by nevercalm at 8:52 AM on June 15


Isn't part of the reason Vermeer is so important in art history that he represents one of those transition points when people learned to see the world differently? On one hand he's a great artist, but he also lived in an era where the collective knowledge of craft and understanding of artists' perception allowed the right person to revolutionize what was possible in painting.

It seems like Tim Jenison recapitulates this process - at least the craft part - to understand what's going on behind the scenes.
posted by sneebler at 8:53 AM on June 15


But, to me at least, Tim showed convincingly that Vermeer used advanced optical instruments to paint some of his paintings.

I don't know much about painting, but I am not really convinced. I do not doubt Vermeer could have used such a set-up, but would he need to? If this technique was in widespread use, we would have heard about it. If it wasn't - would a competent painter of the era be able to produce a similar painting? Not everybody was Vermeer obviously, but if a competent painter could get, say, 95% of the way to the final painting with conventional techniques, Occam's razor suggests there was no trickery involved.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:54 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


I think that this technique is far more time consuming than the usual process. Enough that using this process could severely cut into an artists livelihood. If you're not Vermeer, why waste so much time to come in second best, when you can usual solid, traditional skills to get something decent and saleable in a lot less than half the time?
posted by YAMWAK at 8:58 AM on June 15


I assume Mefiers is pronounced "meff-ee-ays."
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:03 AM on June 15 [13 favorites]


Note to self: finish one of the DVDs I have this weekend so Netflix will send me Tim's Vermeer.
posted by immlass at 9:10 AM on June 15


MetaFilter: Fucking breathe, dammit!
posted by mazola at 9:13 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


It's pretty clear in the documentary that it's Tim's second painting -- the first being a small portrait as proof of concept. One must take into account that Vermeer had years of artistic training before coming up with this technique. That's the real reason this is an amazing documentary. There's a few more reasons, like the subtle not humanly visible details, or a slight detail curvature in the original which he discovers due to his obsession with it, which prove Tim's point. Please don't judge it without actually watching the documentary.

It had generally been believed that Vermeer used a camera obscura, and the documentary brings the two scholars in who had written books on the subject. Part of the delight is watching them tactfully agree that Vermeer used a similar technique to the one that Tim proves works.

I really want one of those little mirror rigs for myself, as I've got a lot of paint here waiting to be put to canvas.
posted by Catblack at 9:14 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]




Those little mirror rigs a couple people have mentioned are cameras lucidas. The Neolucida is a kickstartered example, and their videos describe their design and use. Sadly, the Neolucida is a limited run and they don't seem to be available now.
posted by chrchr at 9:32 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]


So, I think this is fascinating, and maybe it has merit or not. I'm not sure. There are some amazing things that he did just to do this that blows my mind. The astounding amount of work, time and money he put into this.

But what I don't understand is why he says he nailed it (his example of the wall shadows and such), but when I look at the setup (the photo, not the illusory real life blending of things), it seems he smudges some dark colors there when there seem to be none to be found on the wall. You can't tell me that magically, in his painting, there are those shadows that we just don't happen to see because our mind blends it together in real life, but not in the painting?

I guess that's one thing I'm not understanding. If we have this illusion in real life, why do we not have the illusion in the painting? But really - what is the deal with those dark splotches on the wall in his version of the painting where in his photo, while I see shadows and some different shades, there are no clear blots like that.

Does the video show him at that point, painting those splotches, and reference what he apparently sees as a reflection being all... splotchy?

And the lens. That's what REALLY threw me for a loop, but I guess if he's dealing with light rendering and such, then of COURSE a lens is going to be a huge part of how he sees this project.
posted by symbioid at 9:36 AM on June 15


Sadly, the Neolucida is a limited run and they don't seem to be available now.

Wait, the site you linked says there's a second run being made (with improvements!) and they're taking orders up until August!
posted by chrominance at 9:45 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


The Blu-ray version is now available via Amazon. I watched it last night. As a documentary it's excellent, insofar as it shows a man succeeding at his unusual and daunting task. The deeper issue is whether Vermeer ACTUALLY used a camera obscura, not just whether he COULD Have.

This controversy goes back a number of years, and in fact precedes the advocacy of David Hockney. Hockney made a large number of historical claims as to the use of optics by the old masters. Not surprisingly, a number of realist painters and art historians find Hockney's theories completely crackpot, and biographies of artists like Caravaggio, also asserted by Hockney to have used optics, completely ignore Hockney's theories.

For a more detailed criticism of Hockney's theories, I would refer you to this this site, which venerates realism in painting.
posted by Tube at 9:56 AM on June 15


So, you know, this is fascinating and all, but I went to the Rijks Museum, and saw the Vermeers there, and I wonder how you do this with a live model. Maybe Vermeer used gimmicks like explained here, maybe he was just good. Who knows? I don't care because I think his art is spectacular, unique, and unparalleled. If you want to engineer a vermeer, good for you. Maybe you can 3D print one too. Next, got to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and tell me how he manufactured those...
posted by Eekacat at 9:58 AM on June 15


What astonished me--and, of course, makes lens setups seem much more reasonable--is the relationship between Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek, who was also the executor of his estate.

But...I still don't know that I am convinced. The Music Lesson, The Art of Painting, The Geographer and The Astronomer (among others) all exist in the same room, with the same light source, same tiled floor, several similar horizons, etc. You could make the argument that having colors and proportions figured out for you by the lens would make a faster painting, but it seems like having the same setting for multiple paintings (and especially that tiled floor) would be just as useful, building your instinct for proportions and composition. The Geographer and The Astronomer particularly get me, because I swear to god, it's like Vermeer is standing on a box in one of them--everything's the same except the perspective of The Geographer is that of someone standing about a foot taller.
posted by mittens at 10:01 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


"... and I wonder how you do this with a live model."

I loved the movie, loved its exploration of how we, culturally, separate art from craft, loved watching Tim's dedication to the process (and there are a bunch of reasons to cut the lathe rather than build the leg in two pieces, one is that it's probably harder and more expensive to make two end-to-end joints of stock like that than it is to cut a cheap lateh in half)...

... but my real admiration is to his daughter who suffered through serving as the model. That woman gets total props for not going all Lizzie Borden.
posted by straw at 10:03 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


I went to the Rijks Museum a few times, and that museum is full of photo realistic work on a grand scale, huge portraits of citizens in penguin suits all crisp with cufflinks and individual hairs, mustaches, fingernails. Of all the things in that museum, including the luscious seascapes, with see through waves, the Vermeers are the highlight. As an art teacher while assembling slides to talk about Vermeer, I noticed he finally made enough money to get new leaded, beveled glass windows in his studio, where in the beginning paintings they were broken. I work among painters in a large set of studios in Salt Lake, painters here can make extremely representative, realistic work, without a camera obscura, or lens, or anything. I find this whole effort on the part of an engineer to be an obsessive accusation that humans cannot function as accurately as machines, or an engineered situation. A whole lot of paintings in existence clearly debunk this. Even some of the most ancient Egyptian figural statuary debunks the myth that the Greeks were the best at this discipline. I think Tim had some point he wanted to make, and the comparison of how an engineer works, versus how an artist worked, is an interesting pastime for him. Maybe Vermeer was one of those time-travelers, and he couldn't resist taking a camera with him, and a lot of batteries. But, nah, he had such a grasp of light, I so love his work. I went to the Rijks second, after going to absorb the painterly Van Goghs. The Vermeers leave me breathless, and the Van Goghs scintillate so, they leave me in an altered state. I paint, and photograph, I only wish I could magic a painting as fast as I can make a photo, but they are dissimilar disciplines. Three D printers will soon, well right now can make all the impasto you could demand, and turn out "masterpieces" by the ten thousands, but a masterpiece has those two components, the master, and the piece the combined energy of both stand out in time, encouraging plagiarism but mocking it in exquisite silence.
posted by Oyéah at 10:52 AM on June 15 [8 favorites]


Yeah. This whole jargon-infested explanation of how a mechanical contraption somehow sees the light and shadow on a wall more accurately than a human eye ever could - let me just think of a very simple objection to that:

If that's the case how could the human eye be capable of registering the superior version of the wall produced by the mechanism?

Such an explanation might make sense to someone who has never seriously painted ie really concentrated their powers of observation, integration and - what can I call it, whole-body-awareness - to produce a physical artefact. It also ignores the historical context of Dutch realism, to propose Vermeer as some kind outlier. Best among peers, and even that view is subjective and conditional.

You might as well claim anyone could be a musician if only they had a Stradivarius. It is an interesting proposition of a technical point. It doesn't 'explain' the light, nor the meditative sensibility, of those paintings.

Honestly, this reminds me of those old adverts for monitors in the 90's boasting how many thousands of colours they're capable of. Always flat and schematic compared to the human eye, which is not calibrated to be understood in that way.
posted by glasseyes at 11:17 AM on June 15 [5 favorites]


Yeah, but in the film Tim brings in someone who had not painted and did not have the experience with light and video he had and they did a painting together. It was similarly detailed and fantastic

That's called copying.
posted by glasseyes at 11:19 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I would like to see more evidence of his claim that the contrast on the wall is beyond the capability of a human eye to see unless that human eye is seeing it through a lens. That seems odd and somewhat suspect to me.
posted by koeselitz at 11:21 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


The human eye and brain function together and generally have a focus area in mind, except when viewing scenery for the pleasure of it, and then the pupils narrow, and take in the whole scene, like a telephoto lens. No one knows how clearly each human on the world is capable of picking out the details of a scene, the available light runs up against the ability of the human retina to deal with contrast. The brain can go back and forth from area to area the minute to the immense and see it all. While composing photographs, and deciding where to place focus, or deciding what are the initial high value elements of the scene making it worthy of collecting an image, details are not necessarily the interest, but millions of details make an image. So with this said, I was using my old, small digital camera to take pictures in the huge vineyards along highway 99, heading for The Grapevine. The long views and repetitions and new yellow green leaves, in that So Cal haze, made the images irresistible. Later when viewing the images, the scene was full of chicken wire, I never even saw it as I visually averaged the huge scene. I never saw it, but the camera did. Thus my worries about digital technology evaporated as I converted from film to pixels. I don't think the robots will later stop their travels to gather images in the spring, nor differentiate between their virtues. It was not beyond the capacity of my eye to see the chicken wire, I was looking at mile long rows receding into the haze, spring green as far as my eye could see.
posted by Oyéah at 11:37 AM on June 15


It's not that the lens sees things the eye can't. It's that human vision and lenses are both riddled with illusions that all of us take for granted everyday. According to Tim, the Vermeer's exhibit more of the distortions that are typical of lenses than those that are typical of human vision.
posted by chrchr at 11:41 AM on June 15 [7 favorites]


One thing they never bring up is how he handled the changing light. For the technique to work exactly as he proposed the light should be totally static, but it's not. He uses natural light that will brighten then dim as the day goes on.

What I assume is that he allocated 1-2 hours a day to work in roughly the same light. Still the painting took him over 100 days. The character or light from winter to summer is quite different, though with fogged windows that not might be as much of a factor.

I wish they would have mentioned that part, still an amazing discovery, invention, work of art and documentary.
posted by jonclegg at 11:50 AM on June 15


chrchr: “It's not that the lens sees things the eye can't. It's that human vision and lenses are both riddled with illusions that all of us take for granted everyday. According to Tim, the Vermeer's exhibit more of the distortions that are typical of lenses than those that are typical of human vision.”

Er – no. That is not how he explains it in the article. In the article, he says quite clearly that there is more contrast on the wall than the eye can see, and that that contrast is only revealed in a photograph:

from article: “The way Vermeer painted this wall is consistent with a photograph. It is not consistent with human vision. If you were standing in the room that Vermeer painted, you would see that wall as a pretty even shade of off-white. The retina in your eyeball does some image processing to minimize the effect of light and shadow. To your eye, the wall appears to have far less contrast than it actually has. And if you can't see it, you can't paint it.”

According to this accound, the contrast isn't a distortion peculiar to cameras; it's what is actually on the wall.
posted by koeselitz at 11:51 AM on June 15


Maybe on the distortion, but maybe Vermeer's paintings speak about the lenses in his eyes, rather than an optical assistance device. In art school I noticed real differences in the drawings of different gifted students, and the difference was in lens correction from their glasses. Near sighted students made much more vivid three dimensional drawings, their vision wrapped around objects much better than flat, far-sighted lenses in my eyes. How we each, individually see, our own personal optics, right up front has a lot to do with artistic output, then we can tiptoe over into matters of perception, skill, vision, creation and inspiration. It is just not as simple as an interesting mechanical or optical engineering exercise, the whole giant snake biting its own tail of the making of art, is complex as every scale scintillates with a different angle, then we view it, that then we discover it is made of cheese and we are at a cocktail party, no a dream really and Salvatore Dali is pointing and laughing...
posted by Oyéah at 11:51 AM on June 15 [2 favorites]


I kind of want there to be a parody called Tim's Kinkaid where a guy is obsessed with creating a perfect Thomas Kinkiad, reverse engineering the techniques used to infuse paintings with light and treacle.
posted by chrchr at 11:55 AM on June 15 [22 favorites]


I would dispute the notion that all human eyes see things the same way, pick out contrast in the same way. And I'd even dispute the notion that humans simply can't perceive contrast on a wall. Jenison argues that the contrast on the wall is not "consistent with human vision," but that in itself presumes what he's apparently trying to prove: that Vermeer was trying to find a way to exactly replicate a scene as it was seen by a human eye. But that wall in the painting is not some sort of Picassian three-eyed monstrosity that is inconceivable as a real wall to the human eye and mind; in fact, it seems quite real, and seemed quite real for hundreds of years before people had seen color photographs of walls.

If someone is aware of how light and shadow work, then they're likely to paint a wall including the contrast and depth that light and shadow impose on it, even if that contrast and depth isn't immediately apparent at a glance. That's actually point in favor of the argument that Vermeer didn't copy things exactly. If he had, he would have glanced up without the lens and seen that the wall looked all wrong, and he presumably would have fixed it. But he did not.

Hence, it's more plausible, at least on this point, to say that Vermeer probably was just painting a scene with the reality in front of him as a reference, and was not trying rigorously to copy it exactly.
posted by koeselitz at 11:59 AM on June 15


Oh yes, and artists work around the area of focus, and toward the end of the painting they might look at the wall to pick up interesting reflections or how the shadows drag, first the area of focus, and then how much peripheral information people want to see, and how believable it will be if it becomes over worked. He might have worked some days on one area of the painting when the light was exactly certain for a particular area of focus, then eureka on another day, the light bounce wall is lit up, in 100 days the sun could come over the building across the street, and do something on the wall, that it didn't do the day before. The artist decides what to add in, daily. Vermeer may have worked on a painting from exactly 10-noon daily, then in the afternoon, on another from 2-4 daily for a while. This is not to quarrel with the engineers view, artists and engineers frequently work together because they both have valuable additions in design.
posted by Oyéah at 12:00 PM on June 15


This whole tedious business reminds me of that dreadful and embarrassing scene in Roland Emmerich's Anonymous where half the great playwrights of Shakespeare's day sit around in a tavern protesting that they, too, could write a play that was "all in verse" if they wanted to--showing that Emmerich is under the profoundly ignorant misapprehension that what's AMAZING about Shakespeare is that he could keep up iambic pentameter for the duration of a whole play. Because, you know, if someone asked Emmerich to sit down and trot out pages of iambic pentameter he'd find it really, really hard; so obviously that must be what everyone thinks is so amazing about this Shakespeare dude, right? (Which is also why every idiot who peddles a "Shakespeare is really _______" theory thinks the driveling verse produced by their candidate is "OMG so Shakespearean!" because it will, of course, share much in common with Shakespeare--being another example of Elizabethan or Jacobean English verse).

Similarly, marveling at Vermeer's ability to create plausible three-dimensional spaces filled with plausible uni-directional light and believable material textures (etc.) is to think that "what makes Vermeer special" is what, in fact, simply makes Vermeer part of the artistic world of his time. Go look at Pieter de Hooch, Emmanuel de Witte, Gerard Houchgeest, Jacobus Vrel, Pieter Janssens Elinga et al. "Tim's Vermeer" is, to my eye, far more plausibly, "Tim's Pieter De Hooch." And yet we're supposed to believe that somehow Vermeer was the only one of these artists who needed to use these elaborate optical techniques to produce these kinds of works. Or else (Hockney's rather wobbly on this point), we're supposed to believe that they ALL used these kinds of techniques, but somehow managed to keep it a complete secret down through the ages, so that not a single documentary record of an artist ordering the construction of their camera obscura (etc.) survives.

Yeah. Right.
posted by yoink at 12:05 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]


“The way Vermeer painted this wall is consistent with a photograph. It is not consistent with human vision. If you were standing in the room that Vermeer painted, you would see that wall as a pretty even shade of off-white. The retina in your eyeball does some image processing to minimize the effect of light and shadow. To your eye, the wall appears to have far less contrast than it actually has. And if you can't see it, you can't paint it.”

Artists have known since at least the early Renaissance that in order to provide an illusionistic rendering of real-world textures you need to paint things differently from the way the eye sees them. That classic example of the shadow on the chess-board, for example (where the white squares under the shadow are, in fact, the same color as the black squares in full light) is the kind of thing artists had been happily doing for a couple of centuries before Vermeer picked up a paintbrush. Just as we can look at a photograph and say "wow, that's an amazingly accurate illusion of seeing the real thing," artists before the invention of photography were quite capable of understanding that in order to paint an illusionistic representation of a white wall, you couldn't just reach for your tube of white paint and merrily slap it down on the canvas.
posted by yoink at 12:11 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


Even photographers don't just snap the picture and call it good, they set the exposure, the depth of field, the length of exposure, choose the angle of light, the time of day, the angle of reference of what they are seeing. Then they go to the computer and make sure they project what they originally saw, even though they were off in one or two of these areas. A painter might paint for 98 days and on the last two, consolidate the entire effort in what they consider the perfect light, and tune everything up, make it absolutely believable, or perfected in their way of seeing. An engineer working to create a photograph with paint, or even an artist who wants absolute photo realism, has to bend reality to make that happen. Absolutely believable is reality, because absolute is never a description of reality, absolutely changing light in every nano-second is reality. Artists fall into prediction, understanding of visual physics, and applied physics with regard to pigment and application technique. They are engineers.
posted by Oyéah at 12:22 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


I've never been quite sure why people are so obsessed with the photo-realism of Vermeer, when so many other artists of that time and place -- as well as other artists working in other places around the same time -- were doing the same things. Caravaggio's work is every bit as "photo-realistic" as Vermeer's, for example.

Clearly there were techniques that started to be developed in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Western Europe that enabled people to do achieve almost perfect photo-realism (my money is on oil paint rather than the camera obscura, but sure, whichever). But of course the goal of art isn't to be perfectly realistic, and we don't measure great artists on the basis of how close their work is to that of a photograph.

Vermeer is great because his work makes us feel something that we can't really get in any other way, not because his paintings didn't look like paintings.
posted by Sara C. at 2:57 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


I don't get why people seem to think that if Vermeer, or any of his contemporaries, used optical techniques in their work, that somehow diminishes the work.

I don't think it's insulting to an artist to suggest that they might have used some of the technology that would have been available to them.
posted by misfish at 3:17 PM on June 15 [8 favorites]


Next, got to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and tell me how he manufactured those...

I actually once read a pretty compelling theory that Van Gogh's work was in large part enabled by the appearance of chemical pigments in the 19th century. Matisse and the Fauvists, too.

The difference, of course, is that, just like the Camera Obscura, anyone can go out and buy brilliantly colored oil paints, but basically nobody can be Van Gogh or Matisse.

The technology is not the key, in art.
posted by Sara C. at 3:17 PM on June 15


I think these theories are extremely interesting and I'm pretty open to some of their conclusions, but I do get annoyed when they're predicated on the idea that this sort of realism can't be done by eyeballing and skill. That's just not true. It's just that these skills aren't taught very often, and not generally taught in art schools, or at least they didn't used to be. It's not 'hidden knowledge' or that mysterious, it's just really hard and takes a long time to learn and you have to put up with sucking for a more lengthy time than most people can enjoy. A lens or a projection is helpful when starting out because, as some have mentioned above, 3/4s of the work of learning to draw is un-learning how to see and you need to play some tricks on yourself. But you're still seeing the same light!

I read an interview with Hockney about the lens thing, and he was lamenting that the only place they taught life-drawing now was in animation schools. Now I went to exactly such a school, and worked in the studio system in LA where I studied life drawing with, amongst many other great draftsmen, Steve Huston. (not that I ever learned enough to approach that level!). I watched many such drawings being produced from a life model with all the techniques explained and it's not One Weird Trick, it's mostly a great deal of knowledge and experience. I'm not a painter but I know lots of painters and the whole shadows are full of different colours etc. is something you learn in exactly the same way, a lot of theory and hard work. There was a strange brief period when the Hollywood system suddenly needed people who could draw in this way and then, you know, people could, because there was money in it and it was worth it; we worked in an apprentice studio system where everyone shared techniques and pushed each other in a way I imagine would have been very very similar to how a seventeenth century art studio would have been. Nobody hoarded secret knowledge, because you don't learn that way.

I absolutely adore Hockney's work and I do see some of the lens distortions on some the works he talks about. I can easily see how lenses could inspire, or be a useful tool, especially a learning tool. It's the conspiracy theories and the 'ahas!!' that get on my nerves, because art like this is not some huge mystery that needs explaining. It's just hard! And when commercial illustration died no one was being paid enough to learn it! It's not surprising that these theories for how these amazing effects are achieved, are coming from a couple of generations after every art school anywhere would have been teaching classical techniques as a matter of course.
posted by Erasmouse at 3:29 PM on June 15 [6 favorites]


Uhhhhhh what is Hockney smoking? My studio art BFA friends in college all took life drawing classes.
posted by Sara C. at 3:31 PM on June 15


Well, there's life-drawing and then there's life drawing. Really rigorous life drawing disappeared from art schools for decades and is only now just coming back in. I recall the BFAs in my old uni begging for life-drawing, and they'd get maybe a model that they'd 'express themselves' around but not the in-depth anatomy you really need.
posted by Erasmouse at 3:35 PM on June 15


misfish: "I don't get why people seem to think that if Vermeer, or any of his contemporaries, used optical techniques in their work, that somehow diminishes the work. ¶ I don't think it's insulting to an artist to suggest that they might have used some of the technology that would have been available to them."

This whole thing is pretty much the definition of diminishing Vermeer's work. Jenison makes some conciliatory remarks about how Vermeer was good at choosing subjects and lighting or whatever, but he literally says that he has never painted before and yet can paint as well as Vermeer. We can't pretend that it isn't diminishing at least Vermeer's ability as a painter to suggest that a person who has never painted before can do it just as well as he can.
posted by koeselitz at 3:57 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]


(I do agree, misfish, that the mere fact that they used optical techniques doesn't necessarily dismiss them. But Jenison is clearly diminishing them.)
posted by koeselitz at 3:58 PM on June 15


Just want to add, no disrespect at all to the guy in the post, what dedication! I just wonder if he didn't, in a way, trick himself into being a great painter by finding the 'trick', like Dumbo and the magic feather! The Magic Feather is I think the single most important factor in any art.
posted by Erasmouse at 4:01 PM on June 15


These perspectives . . . too accurate for sandpeople.
posted by chrchr at 4:03 PM on June 15 [4 favorites]


I don't know that Jenison is claiming to be able to paint just as well as Vermeer. At the very least, he doesn't shy away from the monumental time and insane degree of concentration and work it took for Jenison to get as close as he did (even if we stipulate that he didn't achieve anything like soaring artistry)
posted by misfish at 4:09 PM on June 15


(even if we stipulate that he didn't achieve anything like soaring artistry)

He didn't even achieve anything like basic workmanship. For all his efforts, the shadows--in all their colorful glory that apparently the human eye cannot see--are clumsy, especially the shadows below the windowsill and beside the mirror: so completely wrong, you wonder whether he was looking at his subject at all. Vermeer got them right; the photograph of Tim's set had them right; the computer-generated images had them right. Why did Tim get them so wrong, smudgy and crooked where they existed at all?
posted by mittens at 4:18 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


(Wordsworth:

That very day,
From a bare ridge we also first beheld
Unveiled the summit of Mont Blanc, and grieved
To have a soulless image on the eye
That had usurped upon a living thought
That never more could be.)
posted by mittens at 4:29 PM on June 15


Why did Tim get them so wrong, smudgy and crooked where they existed at all?

Because he's not an artist. He's an engineer trying to produce a proof of concept. I don't think he claimed to be otherwise.
posted by misfish at 4:38 PM on June 15 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure whether the differences in the shadows in his painting were due to his inability to capture them properly or the fact that the lighting in the real painting is different from the lighting in the actual setting he was working from. For instance in the painting the light falls most strongly on the pink of the woman's skirt, while the shadow cast by the mirror is very soft. In his painting, the skirt is in shadow, and the shadows on the mirror are much sharper. I don't have a technical enough eye to determine whether the shadows are "right" for the lighting he used, but lighting differences would account for the differences in shadow between the two.

It's also blatantly obvious that the effect he's using actually causes the finished product to be too photorealistic. For instance the image reflected in the mirror looks wrong, in a way that ruins the effect of the painting entirely because it draws the eye there despite that not being a particularly important part of the narrative aspect of the piece. The eye should go to the exchange between the man and the woman, not the detailed harpsichord lid or the mirror. The entire story is told in the curve of her shoulder and the way his hand rests on the harpsichord.
posted by Sara C. at 4:41 PM on June 15


Folks who are interested in the photorealism idea or the notion of replicating famous paintings might like 89 Seconds At Alcazar, which is a 2004 video installation based on a recreation of Velazquez' "Las Meninas". The artist, Eve Sussman, basically did exactly what Jenison did here in terms of recreating the setting of the original painting and using it to create a derivative work that comments on realism and narrative.

Also, "Las Meninas" is yet another counterpoint to Hockney's camera obscura theory, for a few reasons. Firstly, it's contemporary with Vermeer and equally "photorealistic". Secondly, because we know that Velazquez painted it using a mirror (the artist and the canvas both appear in the painting), there is no way a camera obscura could have been used.
posted by Sara C. at 5:07 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]




Wait, so according to that article this guy 'proves' Vermeer painted mechanically 'by numbers', but also there's pinpricks for perspective lines so he also used the well documented techniques we've always know about? What?
posted by Erasmouse at 5:26 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]


The eye should go to the exchange between the man and the woman, not the detailed harpsichord lid or the mirror.

Well, I think we shouldn't discount the mirror in the original; it makes a triangle of attentions. Her body is turned away from his stiff, attentive form, but the mirror at least reveals that she is looking at him. At least, I think so. Is she looking down at the keyboard? I almost want to think she's looking down on him--that would be the easy symbol, since her reflection is above him--but there's a sense of focus there that I can't read.

More importantly, the mirror in the original also contains part of Vermeer's easel. But that raises a question: How is he using the lens system with an easel? Tim is painting at a table, not an easel, right?
posted by mittens at 6:03 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


In the painting, the mirror suggests that she's looking at him, but it's not the focal point of the piece in the way that it is in the copy. In the original, the eye goes directly to them. You can look around the painting at the other elements to get a sense of the full story, but if the eye goes directly to the mirror -- as it does in the copy -- the whole effect is ruined. You don't want the first thing you see to inform you that the woman is looking at the man. That's blowing your wad.

It's like the difference between a surveillance video and a wide shot in a film.
posted by Sara C. at 6:08 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


But but but! Am I just reading in the wrong direction? When I read the painting, I go left to right, the way I would in a book, and my eye catches the reflection the moment after it catches her...the man is the last main thing my eye is drawn to, and if he didn't have those bold white stripes against the fading black, I have the horrible feeling my eye would miss him entirely and move on to that big white vase.
posted by mittens at 6:17 PM on June 15


Technique should be confused with artistry.
The movie concentrates on a technique which Vermeer may well have employed to create some of his art.

Frankly, it is a well done documentary and makes a good case. It is not meant to downplay the artistry. Merely trying to explain a method that might have been used to employ it.
posted by twidget at 7:35 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


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